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Uranium: Illuminating the Spectrum of Science, Medicine, and Industry

Author: Cici Zhang 

Editor: Flynn Ma, Sophia Chen, Rachel Chen

Artist: Becky Li

Uranium, with an atomic number of 92, has long piqued the interest of scientists and inventors due to its unique qualities and diverse applications across various fields. Its flexibility makes it an essential resource in modern society, used for energy generation, weapons, scientific study, and medicine, and more.

Uranium can be found throughout nature, including soils, fertilizers, food, and even within human tissues. Most of its radioactivity is derived from minerals formed by uranium's radioactive decay, such as radium and bismuth. Exploration geologists detect the gamma radiation produced by these minerals. Additionally, uranium particles can become airborne through suspended soil and coal fly ash, and their prevalence in water sources varies depending on concentration levels.

One of the most important medicinal applications of uranium is nuclear medicine. Uranium isotopes, particularly uranium-235, play an essential role in the production of radioisotopes, such as technetium-99m, which is used in diagnostic imaging techniques such as single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). This technique allows clinicians to examine internal organs with high precision, allowing for earlier and more accurate diagnoses and treatment plans. Furthermore, researchers have devised methods for producing uranium-230, a promising option for targeted alpha therapy in cancer treatment. This innovative therapeutic approach uses alpha-emitting isotopes attached to biologically compatible molecules, allowing radioactive medications to be safely delivered directly to tumors. Additionally, uranium has the potential to treat a variety of ailments, including particular malignancies, AIDS, and anemia. In particular, the American chemist Dr. George Whipple utilized uranium to create a revolutionary medicine, earning him a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of medicine.

Furthermore, uranium compounds are required to manufacture radiopharmaceuticals—specialized medications containing radioactive elements used in diagnostic imaging and therapy. By incorporating uranium-derived isotopes into pharmaceutical formulations, scientists can develop highly precise agents for imaging, drug delivery, and targeted therapy. These advances in radiopharmaceutical innovation have transformed medical practice, enabling specially-tailored treatment plans and enhanced patient outcomes.

Depleted uranium, a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process, is also used in various ways. Its thick density makes it appropriate for use as ballast in commercial aircraft and boat keels. Additionally, because of its density and high atomic number, depleted uranium is used to shield gamma radiation in medical radiation therapy devices and containers for transporting radioactive materials, proving to be significantly more effective than lead. 

The most common use of uranium in our daily lives remains in thermal and nuclear power plants. After being converted into uranium dioxide, uranium produces thermal energy via steam, which drives turbines to generate electricity for both household and commercial use. But uranium has several applications beyond its well-known roles in energy production and healthcare; it is also used in material sciences, such as Alfred Nobel’s “Brick Konkrete,” a dense building material recognized for its load-bearing properties.

Uranium's numerous applications in research, medicine, energy, and industry highlight its significance in modern society. From its role in powering cities to its promise in medicinal advances, uranium continues to affect our environment, providing benefits and challenges as we navigate its diverse usage and future implications.

 

Citations:

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“Radioisotopes | What are Radioisotopes?” ANSTO,

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“A Useful Element: Uranium and Its Various Applications.” enCore Energy, 27 April 2022,

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